A coalition of food science experts says that the meat industry is risking its reputation by continuing to use carcinogenic chemicals in processed meats. If they continue, the group says, the industry could suffer a public relations crisis on par with what the tobacco industry has faced in recent decades.
The coalition cites a “consensus of scientific opinion” saying that nitrites, used in processed meat such as sausage, salami, and jerky, produce carcinogens in the body. The group, led by food scientist Chris Elliott, says that 6,600 cases of bowel cancer in the UK each year can be attributed to the chemicals.
“Government action to remove nitrites from processed meats should not be far away. Nor can a day of reckoning for those who dispute the incontrovertible facts. The meat industry must act fast, act now – or be condemned to a similar reputational blow to that dealt to tobacco,” said cardiologist Dr. Aseem Malhotra, a member of the group.
It might be an exaggeration to compare the processed meat industry to big tobacco. But the group is right that it’s time to move away from chemicals that scientists consistently link to cancer. While we may think of products like ham and sausage as familiar and harmless, we’re also living in a time with unprecedented cancer rates – one in five men and one in six women will develop cancer in their lifetimes.
We may need to take a hard look at products and lifestyles that we consider familiar and innocuous.
In 2015, the UN World Health Organization published data that attributed 34,000 cases of colorectal cancer to the nitrites and nitrates in processed meat.
The report, from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), caused quite a backlash. Processed meats were declared carcinogenic, in the same category as cigarettes. A lack of context led many to assume this meant that bacon is as carcinogenic as cigarettes – this is not the case. The categories indicate the strength of evidence, rather than degree of risk. In contrast, non-processed red meat was placed in the category of “probable” carcinogens.
And indeed, the evidence is strong. In the 2015 report, 22 experts reviewed over 800 studies. They found that eating 50 grams of processed meat daily (about 4 strips of bacon or a hot dog) increased colorectal cancer risk by 18 percent – raising average lifetime risk from 5 to 6 percent.
In other words, it’s a small risk, but the evidence for that risk is fairly strong. Processed meat is in the same category as cigarettes, but it’s also in the same category as alcohol, which is responsible for 600,000 cancer cases each year, as well as air pollution, which causes 200,000. Most people would agree that minimizing consumption of alcohol, and exposure to air pollution, is a wise health choice. Few would argue that it’s realistic to eliminate either one.
So the question is, do producers have a role in helping to reduce the rates of cancer caused by their product? Could these products be made safer?
Part of the problem is in labeling. In the US, many labels will state that a product has “no artificial preservatives” or “no nitrates or nitrites added,” leading most consumers to assume they’re avoiding the carcinogenic chemicals. But many of these products instead use natural products like celery juice or sea salt, which ultimately lead to just as high nitrite content as other products. This is often the case with products labeled natural, organic, or even uncured.
In December of 2016, the food safety group the Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a petition with the Department of Agriculture calling for cancer warning labels on processed meat products, which a spokesperson recently told The New York Times is still “under review.”
But at the very least, consumers need access to this information so they can make personal choices.
Also, now that scientists are raising the alarm, some companies are striving to offer truly nitrite-free meat products such as bacon. Last year, the Northern Irish company Finnebrogue began offering the “first truly nitrite-free bacon,” using only fruit and spice extracts. While other companies have offered nitrite-free bacon, the company believes it’s the first to achieve comparable taste and shelf life.
And earlier this year, a similar product hit shelves from Marks and Spencer. They worked with Finnebrogue to use innovation and natural extracts to replace nitrites.
Elliot, who led the coalition behind this week’s report, praised the recent developments by British manufacturers.
“To have a bacon produced naturally, that doesn’t require such chemicals to be added or formed during processing, is a very welcome development,” he said.
While the risks from these products should not be overstated, and IARC certainly needs to hone its science communication practices, there is plenty of evidence that reduced consumption of these chemicals would lead to fewer cases of cancer. At least some of the responsibility lies with the food industry and regulators, which should inform consumers of the risks, and even work toward avoiding added nitrites when possible.